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If a human being falls ill and visits a hospital, a whole host of experts will be at hand to treat his condition. The laboratory will know the normal ratio of red blood cells to white blood cells, will know the normal levels of sodium or calcium in the plasma, will know what microbes or parasites to look for. The physician will know what medicines to prescribe, and how much, and what outcome to expect. But what happens when a wallaby falls ill? Or a parrot, or a blue tongued skink? What might be normal for a mongoose lemur might be different for a Mayotte lemur. A bug that seems to have no effect upon an ocelot might kill a clouded leopard. Why?

And why do some animals breed so readily in captivity, while others seem so reticent? Does food have anything to do with it? Or is it design of cages? Or something else?

The gerenuk is a graceful long-necked gazelle from the and thorn-bush regions of Eastern Africa. Zoos in America that kept gerenuk despaired of ever breeding them. Then it was discovered that the female gerenuk signals her receptivity to the male through a scent in her urine. In the wild, gerenuk are quite independent of water, and scarcely ever drink. The urine of a wild gerenuk is highly concentrated. Zoos, out of misplaced kindness, gave their animals plenty of fresh water. The result was a dilute urine far too feeble to attract the male. Once the problem was diagnosed, the solution was simple take away the water and the animals should breed. They did.

There are literally thousands of lessons like this one, and countless more waiting to be learned. Some can be learned through sheer luck, some through years of trial and error, but most require the application of the scientific method – in short they require research. Veterinary surgeons need to know the normal haematology of penguins, curators need to know the social preferences of marmosets, the best diet for red pandas, or the best incubation temperatures for Bateleur eagle eggs.

Very few good zoos can afford to devote realistic sums of money towards defined programmes of research. But they can nonetheless encourage research in a number of ways. To begin with they could offer training to keepers in the scientific method, could encourage them to keep accurate records and observations of the behaviour, health, and growth of the animals in their charge, and could then offer them a medium in which to publish any significant findings. Jersey Zoo goes so far as to employ a large percentage of keepers with university degrees, and has an exhaustive record-keeping system that provides a historical record of everything that has happened to every animal – the detailed observations and outcome of every illness and treatment, how animals were sedated and moved, what they eat how they behave towards one another, and so on. You never know what might prove to be useful. So record it all.

Good zoos share the information they gather. Some employ their own full time veterinary staff, both to treat sick animals, and to study ways of maintaining animals in a healthy state. They support and solicit research from universities or research establishments nearby. Behavioural research is particularly suited to zoos. One way to measure how ‘happy’ zoo animals are is to study and compare their behaviour in the wild, and their behaviour in the zoo. If they are spending the same proportions of their time doing the same sort of things, then they are probably okay.

Just as zoos are undervalued as an educational resource, so they seem to be undervalued as a research resource. How can we understand our world if we fail so abysmally to understand the creatures that share it with us? Good zoos can, and should, do a lot more to help improve our understanding. They will benefit. The animals will benefit. Our great-grandchildren will benefit. And ultimately the planet will benefit.

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Editor: Jon Clarke    Research: John and Sue Ironmonger, Ray Heaton, and the readers of goodzoos.com   Illustrations by G.L.Grandy. Thanks to John Ironmonger for the original idea of GoodZoos.com.

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